Emmy swag suites offer goodies with a good-cause connection

It would seem that giving away piles of coveted goodies like iPads, diamond jewelry, Palm Pixis and Caribbean vacations would be enough to draw hungry crowds to swag lounges on Emmy Awards weekend.

But with stiff competition for major talent, and the number of gifting suites multiplying, it’s taking a nonprofit theme to lure some of the stars this season.

Gifting suites, a swanky tradition around Hollywood awards shows, are increasingly emphasizing their charitable tie-ins as a way to bring in celebrities who might find it crass to attend an event that resembles trick-or-treating for (already wealthy) adults. Especially because the country’s still mired in the effects of the recession, the focus on donating to worthy causes allows image-conscious stars to haul home some high-end loot without looking completely out of touch.

“Having a strong link to a charity means that the event’s not just about taking, it’s also about giving back,” said Gavin Keilly, founder and chief executive of GBK, a veteran event producer whose Emmy lounge at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills will benefit CancerCare and other nonprofit groups. “It gives the celebrities a chance to learn about these charities, and it gives us a better chance of having them show up.”

The top-tier lounges this year are donating to Hollywood-based and national charities like the Creative Coalition, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation and the Ann & George Lopez Foundation for underprivileged children. Keilly gives 20% of his sponsor fees to three nonprofits, while brands at his and other suites give additional money to designated charities, often in conjunction with the talent that visits. Some stars who disdain the whole walking-advertisement idea have come through the lounges just to participate in the charity fundraisers, organizers said.

But make no mistake, these lounges are still about the stuff. Celebrities who are on the guest lists this weekend will be showered with Tacori baubles, handmade Magnanni shoes, one-year memberships to Crunch gym, Invicta watches and Giorgio Armani beauty products, which just scratch the surface of the hip and hot freebies.

“Everybody loves Christmas morning,” said Samantha Haft, president of On 3 Productions, which is hosting the product-packed backstage lounge at the Nokia Theatre. “Celebrities get to find out about the latest trends and the must-have products before anyone else.”

Suites usually have a mix of established and emerging brands, like Prada and Vintage Revolution jeans, and ultra luxury and household goods, such as Turks and Caicos vacations and Altoids mints. P.F. Chang’s Home Menu, grocery store frozen entrees, will give out a year’s supply of the new product and Hasbro will stock celebrities’ game collections through On 3’s suite, while Capella Resorts will give away trips to its ritzy Cabo San Lucas seaside hotel at Kari Feinstein’s 2010 Style Lounge. There are plenty of on-site spa services, themed cocktails and organic nibbles.

“There has to be a wow factor — big ticket, exciting items,” said Feinstein, co-founder of Feinstein/McGuiness PR and Style Lounge creative director. “People wouldn’t respond if I said, ‘Hey, come get some shampoo and a manicure.’ ”

At the same time, stars may end up being “just as stoked about some new coconut water as they are about getting an iPad,” she said.

Every step of the way, there are event photographers documenting the action, and those photographs are the holy grail for companies that pay as much as $6,000 just to get a spot on the roster. (That doesn’t count the cost of the product they dole out).

It’s quid pro quo that stars have their pictures taken if they’re accepting free goods, and Keilly said he has 10 shutterbugs on hand because “we never want to miss that Kodak moment.”

Everyone who’s nominated for an Emmy gets invited to the suites, as do presenters and performers. Emmy host Jimmy Fallon, the casts of “Mad Men,” “Glee” and “Modern Family,” along with paparazzi bait like Kim Kardashian and “The Bachelor” lovebirds are among the chosen invitees. The guest lists need to be filled with stars that brands want to associate with and major media want to cover, organizers said.

There’s still a hierarchy with swag lounges, and Oscar suites are the pinnacle, organizers say. The Emmys and the Golden Globes have gained prestige in recent years, though, because so many well-known film stars now work in television. They’re more appealing to some sponsors because TV talent is accessible, compared with, say, Oscar nominees who pull in $20 million a year and don’t need a free vacation or the potential backlash that could come from a gifting suite. Nor do they need the media exposure, which television stars often relish whether they’re promoting their current shows or scouting for their next project.

For a company like RevitaLash, gifting suites have provided sky-high return on investment, said Hannah Murray, vice president of marketing. Photos of stars holding and using products can stretch a marketing budget for miles, serving as fodder for Facebook, blogs and other social media.

“There’s no way I’d be able to reach all those people with commercials and traditional advertising,” she said. “It would take me a lot of time and money and even then it might not happen.”